Judge Sandra Dozier is more than happy to sing the praises of her favorite silent film star—and of this TCM boxed set.
"I'd like to tell you the story of how Buster Keaton came to MGM as one of the greatest comics in the whole world, and ended up being regarded as totally unemployable just five years later."—James Karen
Although Keaton went on from his career at MGM to star in several short films and write for other feature players, he never returned to the height of stardom that he reached in 1928. The catalyst for this decline was his signing on as a contract player for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios in 1928. Keaton was drawn in by the promise of bigger budgets and better distribution of his films, but he soon realized that he would sacrifice not only his control over each film but most of his creative freedom, as well. As MGM tightened their stranglehold over every aspect of production, the quality and entertainment value of his movies took a nose dive, and Keaton's personal life suffered.
This boxed set is a showcase of his best work while under contract for MGM, and a look at his decline and fall.
Facts of the Case
The films included in this set are Keaton's first three efforts for MGM:
•The Cameraman (1928)—Buster plays a portrait
photographer who wants to be a newsreel cameraman after meeting and falling for
a lovely secretary who works at the newsreel office. A sweet little romance
ensues, wherein Buster does just about anything to woo Sally, who tries to help
him succeed in the cutthroat world of the newsreel business.
•Spite Marriage (1929)—Buster plays a dry cleaner
employee who falls in love with a stage idol. He sees her every performance and
insinuates himself into her life, then ends up marrying her when she is jilted
by her lover. When her manager finds out about it, they are quickly separated,
but circumstances bring them back together and give them one more chance to do
•Free and Easy (1930)—Buster plays Elmer Butts, the
manager of a potential star who wants to make it big in Hollywood. On the train,
she catches the eye of a young actor and is invited to his set. Unfortunately,
no one invited Elmer, and he has to sneak onto the lot. Once there, he is chased
through multiple movie sets by security and eventually impresses a director
enough to be cast in a comedic role himself.
There are two discs in this set, and on the second disc is Free and Easy and a documentary on Buster Keaton's years at MGM that is appropriately titled So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM. Narrated by Keaton's friend James Karen (Mulholland Dr.), this feature profiles Keaton from the beginning of his stint with MGM in 1928 with The Cameraman to his abrupt dismissal in 1933 after What! No Beer? was finished. The disintegration of his marriage, his descent into alcoholism, and his work as a writer for up-and-coming talent like Red Skelton and the Marx Brothers are unflinchingly yet tenderly laid out. Most illuminating are scene-by-scene comparisons between Keaton's earlier movies and later Skelton films that Keaton wrote for and that are basically shot-by-shot recreations of famous Keaton gags, only with Skelton's persistent, frozen smile in place the entire time.
Robert Osborne does introductions for The Cameraman and Spite Marriage that set up both films nicely and succinctly (think of them as the Cliffs Notes for the accompanying commentary tracks), and there is a photo montage for both movies that consists mostly of set and production shots, with very few (if any) scene stills. Shots for The Cameraman are in particularly good shape, with excellent grayscale depth of color. Here you can also hear some of the original theme music for the movie.
Buster Keaton is my favorite silent film star. His willingness to push the envelope, his ability to do physical stunts that still delight and amaze modern audiences, and his dogged determination won me over when I was introduced to his silent movies as a child. I would watch them whenever they came on television just to see what he would do next. Although Keaton also made several talking pictures, his silent movies are what made him famous and define his most creative efforts as a filmmaker and actor.
As an independent for many years, he delighted audiences with his maverick stories, which were largely improvised on-set. When he went under contract for MGM, a studio that had distributed his movies in the past, the loss of creative control was a blow to the quality of his art. He was required to have fully fleshed-out scripts with detailed descriptions of gags so that any materials or props could be requisitioned, and he was limited in the scope of his stunts, as well—MGM would not allow him to do anything that seemed too dangerous. A movie like Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), which featured a memorable scene where Keaton is walking dazedly away from a collapsing house and is only saved by a strategically placed window when one whole side wall comes down on top of him, would have been their worst nightmare. As MGM grew more restrictive, Buster grew more pensive. He was always a game performer, but as one absurdity after another was forced on him, his enthusiasm wilted. The three films in this collection, the first three he did for MGM (not counting the ensemble The Hollywood Revue , in which he was just a performer), are some of the best he did for the studio, but they already show a decline in his creative expression as MGM exerted more control over production.
The first movie in this set, The Cameraman (1928), is absolutely delightful. It has been cited by many as a Keaton classic, and deservedly so. Between the entertaining physical comedy and the endearing courtship of Buster and Sally (Marceline Day, with whom Keaton had a lot of on-screen chemistry), there is a lot of entertainment value packed into the 76-minute running time. Due to a vault fire that claimed the original master, film quality for this movie was poor for years after its release (as copies of copies were made), but then a set of promotional prints was uncovered that contained nearly 80% of the movie. The version found in this boxed set, therefore, is a restored print that has a few of the old scenes (which show a lot of age-related wear and are more washed out) but mostly features the fresher print (which does show some age-related wear but overall has a much cleaner image, with deeper blacks and brighter whites). The soundtrack was also completely redone with original music by Arthur Barnow, who provides a delightful score that captures the feel of the movie (and of silent film music in general). As you might expect, the sound quality is very good, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track that is clear and open. This is probably the best viewing experience modern audiences will ever have for The Cameraman.
As well as being a showcase for his physical virtuosity, this is one of Keaton's sweeter love stories. It's hard not to be moved by his devotion to the fair Sally and his willingness to do silly things to impress her. In one scene, Buster is forced to accept a ride from his rival, and he has to sit in the open rumble seat while Sally sits with the rival in the front. By the time they get home, he is soaked to the skin from a torrential rain, and she apologizes for his having to endure it. Kneading his hat brim nervously, he says, "It was worth it…to be near you." What heart would not melt at this? Certainly Sally swoons, giving him a brief kiss and then fleeing immediately with a smile on her face.
Do not miss the excellent scene-specific commentary for The Cameraman by Glenn Mitchell, author of The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy. Mitchell provides a wealth of information about the movie, both behind the scenes and in terms of on-screen action, as well as Keaton's experience with MGM and filmmaking in general. Mitchell's conversational speaking style keeps the commentary fresh and easy to listen to, and he talks extensively about one of my favorite pet peeves, the unfortunate nickname of "The Great Stone Face" that Keaton earned due to his style of rarely smiling or even frowning in his pictures, instead evoking much of his "language" through his physical comedy. In fact, Keaton had extremely expressive eyes that could communicate more with a wide-eyed look of horror, or a carefully lidded "sigh" of pleasure, than his mouth ever could, and Mitchell points out several instances of this in The Cameraman.
Spite Marriage is probably the best looking of the three pictures in this set. The image is quite well preserved, with age-related wear showing up as the occasional blotch or line on the screen for a few frames before disappearing again and leaving a virtually undamaged print that has a rich grayscale color depth. The sound is also preserved well, with a mono soundtrack that has the tinny quality of all source recordings at that time but otherwise is nearly free of any hiss or buzz, and has no pops or other sound garbage. This is also a very lively track, featuring sound cues such as telephones, clopping horse sounds, and musical simulations of things like laughter and yelling.
Although Keaton wanted to do this movie as a talkie (MGM said no, preferring to save their soundstage for musicals), Spite Marriage works better as a silent picture. Keaton plays a besotted Everyman named Elmer, a character he would reprise later (right down to the name) but be forced to play as a hapless dimwit. Spite Marriage is your last chance to see Elmer as he was meant to be—not the sharpest tool in the shed, but making up for it by being thoughtful and kind. After marrying the starlet and taking her home after an embarrassing evening on the town, where she gets publicly drunk and raves to her former lover, he buys a stuffed dog to cheer her up with. When he comes in, he pushes it through the door first and playfully makes it talk, only to follow it in and find his wife's manager instead of the starlet herself. The manager rudely tells him that it was a sham marriage and that his wife wants him to get lost so she can annul it. The heartbreak and surprise on his face are real—as a serial optimist, Elmer went into it not expecting the worst of humanity, but getting it all the same. Things get better for the couple after that, as fate brings them back together on a yacht, and Elmer, with his big heart, can't help but care for her again.
The commentary by John Bengtson, author of Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Buster Keaton and Jeffrey Vance, co-author of Buster Keaton Remembered, is a veritable avalanche of information about Keaton and the movie. Both men clearly know a lot about Keaton and his style of filmmaking, and the tag-team style of commentary manages to stay scene-specific while still filling in a lot of information about Keaton's artistic and personal life. This may be a bit overwhelming for those who like commentaries that feel more like watching a movie with a friend (one of the two commentators is speaking for nearly every minute of screen time), but for anyone wanting to know more about Keaton's genius (let's face it, that's what it was), this is another excellent commentary that adds a lot of value to the set.
Unfortunately, the third picture, Free and Easy, is the worst of the lot, both in terms of picture/sound quality and as entertainment. It seems likely that it was put here as a reference for the other two, since many of the scenes from this movie appear in the documentary also included in this set, and as a representative talkie he did for MGM. In fact, it was Keaton's first talking picture (the first one MGM would allow him to make), and it is very clear that he had to make some huge concessions in order to get it done. There are several musical numbers, and while Keaton is a good singer and dancer, it's not what he's best at, and his talents are wasted in this film. As this is an early talkie, the preoccupation with word gags drags things down further. Instead of a well-turned scene like the opening sequence, in which Elmer (Keaton) gives a speech in which he promises not to let his young charge out of his sight as her train (with her on it) pulls away behind him, we get excruciating scenes in which Keaton and the director of a picture he agrees to play a bit part for argue about his line in a "Who's on First" style of confused meaning. Some problems can be forgiven, since this was an early talkie for MGM and everyone was still getting used to the medium, but this movie clearly underlines Keaton's lack of creative freedom as far as the material he was allowed to do. He is still trying to make it work here, though, and the musical sequences he is involved in are entertaining, but the beginning of the end is evident. There is one shot worth watching this movie for alone: when Buster pulls himself up onto a platform that is almost two feet above his head with apparent ease, my mouth dropped open. The man was a true athlete and a joy to watch.
The picture and sound quality don't fare well; the picture is very washed-out, with no bright whites or dark blacks, but a sort of even grayness to the entire picture, and several scenes that are dark around the edges or darker than the rest of the print. There's also a substantial amount of interference on the picture, in the form of scratches, lines, and blotches on nearly every frame. Fortunately, the picture itself is sharp enough that these imperfections are at least tolerable. The picture is further marred by several scenes that have minor skips in them, as if a record is skipping on the player—sound and picture both skip, so this is probably a source problem rather than a problem with transfer. Sound quality is quite bad, with a mono track that has substantial hissing and popping, and a very muddy sound. There are no extras to accompany this movie, not even an introduction by Robert Osborne, which again seems to indicate that Free and Easy was included more for completeness or reference than for anything else.
Finally, the documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM is a 2004 documentary that wraps up this set nicely. It includes 1964 interviews with Keaton and tracks his career from his beginnings with mentor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle through his dismissal from MGM. James Karen speaks with obvious affection when talking about Keaton, whom he knew very well in his later years. Although the documentary concentrates mostly on his MGM years, as the title would suggest, it's a very good retrospective on his entire career and discusses the disintegration of his marriage and his romance with and marriage to Eleanor Norris, who would stay with Keaton until his death in 1966.
The packaging for this set deserves mention, as it is very attractive. Several movie stills are blue filtered and reproduced on the cover, as well as behind the clear DVD case on the fold-out inner sleeve. Tables of contents are printed on the fold-out, along with a miniature full-color representation of each of the movie posters. The title type is a simple, old-style font, and the front cover features Keaton posed in hat and suit, with a "TCM Archives" banner positioned at the top. Each disc is imprinted with a still from the movies: Disc One has a still from Spite Marriage, and Disc Two has a still from Free and Easy.
This is a must-have set for any Keaton fan. With a restored version of The Cameraman (both image and sound have been restored, with a lovely new score in Dolby 2.0 surround), two excellent commentary tracks that provide a wealth of information about the two silent films and Keaton's career with MGM, introductions from Robert Osborne, and a solid full-length documentary about his MGM movies, there is a lot here for Keaton fans to enjoy. Seeing The Cameraman restored to such quality is worth it alone. Enjoy.
With his gift for escaping, the court doesn't have the guts to try to hold him. Buster Keaton is free and clear.
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